23 Jan 2007

Gustav Mahler. Letters to His Wife

True to the title of this collection, the present volume of correspondence edited by Henry-Louis de La Grange and Günther Weiss — here translated, revised , and supplemented by Antony Beaumont — offers, to date, the most complete body of letters of Gustav Mahler to his wife Alma.

Whether additional correspondence will in the future surface, the model presented here by the editors, and in the present revised translation, should prove to be a critical yardstick which would surely accommodate subsequent additions.

Although previous collections of the Mahlers’ letters have been issued in numerous preliminary and corrected editions, Beaumont lays forth convincing evidence for his translation as well as emendations to the 1995 German edition. For his revised English version of the German original, both accessibility and accuracy have been guiding principles. In the Foreword and — just as pointedly — the “Preface to the English Edition” Beaumont makes clear from comparative charts and commentary that a significant amount of correspondence appears here in English for the first time. Further, since the appearance in 1995 of the German edition of the letters, both the release of material from the Moldenhauer archives and the publication of Alma Mahler’s early diaries (Tagebuch-Suiten) have yielded a more complete picture of the decade or so of nearly regular correspondence.

The organization of the present edition and translation differs from previous attempts to catalogue and make accessible the letters and related material. As an example, in the edition of Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters (3rd revised ed. and trans., D. Mitchell, B. Creighton, K. Martner) the diary-entries and letters were presented in two separate parts of the volume. Beaumont’s edition, by contrast, attempts to integrate both aspects by interspersing the letters with excerpts from the diaries or recollections, and by inserting regular editorial commentary or elaboration as an aid to the reader. At the same time, surviving entries on postcards and telegrams directed by Gustav to Alma Mahler are included chronologically as equivalent testimony with the letters. Finally, because of the transfer of significant material from the Moldenhauer archives to the Bavarian State Library, individual dates for letters have been verified or corrected on the basis of new, available evidence.

Since the translation of letters which appeared in both the new and previous editions differs — for the most part — in style, we may concentrate on that which the present edition offers as supplementary data. Beaumont has devised a key to indicate, among other matters, 1) letters or communications that have not previously been published, and 2) portions of letters with passages marked that had formerly been “suppressed.” These passages are identified with parenthetical marking (<…>) and function, at times, as the introduction to substantial letters. The reader thus now has the opportunity to perceive some letters in their entirety and to consider subsequent paragraphs differently because of the potential for restored information at the opening. In other examples, internal passages in the letters, constituting groups of sentences or short phrases, have been restored, these also being marked with the key indicating previous suppression. It would be further helpful for scholarly purposes to have an exact specification of the source(s) for each of the restored passages; this could be supplied via a traditional apparatus. That having been said, scholars must now ask if the newly available parts of these letters yield a different or modified picture — or perhaps new interpretive insights — into the creative personalities of Gustav or Alma Mahler, if not both.

Many of the letters from Gustav to Alma were written during the period of their courtship or during extended times of professional separation after their marriage. These latter periods were inevitably occasioned by Mahler’s duties as conductor, during periods of isolation for composition, or as part of a related professional invitation. As a consequence, Mahler’s voice in this correspondence is divided between lover, husband, composer, conductor, mentor, and reporter of travel anecdotes. Several groups of the letters, taken from representative period of the correspondence, will provide a sense of the topics discussed along with the range of comments dealing with artistic and personal issues.

As a first such group, Gustav Mahler’s letters written to Alma during December 1901 — several months before their marriage — will show some of the modifications offered in the present edition. At the time Mahler had traveled to Berlin for a performance of his Fourth Symphony. A letter written to Alma on 14 December had — in previous critical editions — given rise to some concern on exact dating, since Mahler had inscribed the letter “15 December.” Beaumont’s edition confirms the dating of 14 December, proposed earlier by Mitchell and Creighton. In a subsequent letter from this Berlin sojourn [16 December 1901], Gustav Mahler’s explanation of his “flippant tone” in a previous missive to Alma has now been restored in Beaumont’s edition. This letter shows the effect of including, at both the start of the letter and within the body of the text, several substantial passages that had been stricken from the text as it appeared in previous editions. Again, the supposition of a correction to the dating is here affirmed [Mahler had written incorrectly 17 December 1901]; further, the lengthy first paragraph and a later, similar insert establish continuity and demonstrate a typical surge from personal to aesthetic before returning to the topic of a planned rendezvous, all within the text of one letter. Gustav Mahler’s attempt in the restored first paragraph to account for his flippancy was occasioned by Alma’s epistolary references to another man. Mahler explains in this newly available paragraph that she simply did not understand his tone — as related in print — and that she would have appreciated his jovial attempts to “educate” her, had they been physically together. He concludes this paragraph by glossing over a previous disgruntled attitude and referring to a future bliss in common. In the second paragraph, which had appeared in print previously, Mahler refers to his work and public opinion on the same; he cautions Alma not to respond to other, uninformed views — especially those of his detractors in Vienna, who surely did not understand his art. When read after the first, restored paragraph, the tone of the mentor continues logically between topics — personal and professional, emotional and aesthetic — so that the second paragraph does not bear as unmotivated a tone. Likewise, a later, restored paragraph in this letter elaborates on their planned reunion once Mahler had returned to Vienna. Alma had apparently suggested that he visit her immediately upon arrival; in the newly edited version, Mahler pleads “administrative duties” that would distract him from emotional concentration, if he did not settle these first before visiting Alma. Without this paragraph the earlier version of the letter depicts Mahler as an urgent suitor who relies on his beloved to prepare her family for their relationship on the basis of his falsely presumed accessibility.

During a similar series of communications in September and October 1903 Gustav Mahler commented to Alma on leading artistic figures in Vienna as well as his visit to Amsterdam to conduct the Concertgebouw Orchestra in performances of his Third Symphony. In a previously unpublished letter to Alma, inscribed “Vienna, 4 September 1903,” Mahler declares that he has “absolutely nothing to report.” After complaining of headaches and personal anxiety, he goes on to speak of decisive figures at the Hofoper: Alfred Roller and Anna von Mildenburg are discussed along with a visiting tenor who must be accommodated. Since this letter is now, for the first time, available, scholars have further evidence of the hectic parade of notables regularly accompanying Mahler’s duties at the opera. In the following month Mahler traveled via Frankfurt to Amsterdam. On a postcard depicting Goethe and his parents — now published in Beaumont’s edition — Mahler writes of a similar journey with Alma during the previous year and his wish to travel with her again. The following letters from Amsterdam compliment Willem Mengelberg’s kindness and the astounding preparedness of the Concertgebouw Orchestra which Mahler was rehearsing for performances of his Third. Although Mahler appreciated Mengelberg’s domestic hospitality, he suggests to Alma that they lodge at a hotel, should they visit Amsterdam as a couple in the future. Aside from objecting to restrictions on his freedom, Mahler seems to have revised his opinion — as witnessed in passages here restored — on a possible relocaton to Holland after eventual retirement. Finally, in a brief yet significant aside (previously deleted), Mahler confides to Alma in the letter of 20 October 1903 that the Concertgebouw Orchestra was intent on performing all of his symphonies up to that time. Although the comment is not equivalent to evidence of a contract, the inspiration of hope is clear. Such newly added details show that Mahler’s reputation and appreciation of his creativity was gaining in international circles, despite his complaints to Alma — less than two years before — of being misunderstood in his chosen home environment of Vienna. Surely these additions make the revised version of the letters from Gustav to Alma Mahler a significant source for further scholarship on the composer, his creativity, and the productive relationship between two individuals which helped shape the course of modern music.

Salvatore Calomino
Madison, Wisconsin